Adelie Penguins – So What’s In A Name?

We all know and love Adelie penguins.  In fact, they are one of my favorites.  But, where, how, why and who does this name come from?   It’s a lovely and dainty sort of old school French name that for the last 170 years has indelible ties to penguins, nature and exploration.  If you’re looking for something familiar yet unique, perhaps the answer to a penguin trivia question, you just may want to look in her direction.


As a penguin lover you’ve undoubtedly heard of the name Adélie, but chances are you never associated it with an actual person.  But, the name most familiar to us as an Antarctic penguin species was a 19th century woman who ironically never got to see penguins in person.   Adélie Pepin was the daughter of a French clockmaker.  In 1816, she married a French explorer named Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville.

Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville

Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville

She appears to have had a rather uneventful, but difficult life.  Her mother-in-law did not approve of the marriage and refused to meet her, her explorer husband was frequently away on long voyages, and at least four of her children died young.  But, in 1837, her husband was sent away on his last of many voyages, to try to find the South Magnetic Pole and claim it for France.  The expedition as many of the far flung Antarctic 19th century journey’s suffered many hardships, and when his ship the L’Astrolabe finally anchored in icy Antarctica over two years later, he decided to name that stretch of coast Terra Adélie, or Adélie Land, after his wife.

L'Astrolabe breaking water on an ice floe 6 February 1838

L’Astrolabe breaking water on an ice floe 6 February 1838

Dumont described her as a “devoted partner who agreed three times to long and painful separations.”  He also discovered one of the southernmost penguin species in the world and also named them after his wife.  Undoubtedly, naming newly discovered lands and species is the captains prerogative.   Today, 170 years later anyone who loves penguins or for that matter schoolchildren who have read Mr. Popper’s Penguins are familiar with Adélies.   I wonder what Adélie Pepin thought all those years ago about having a short, flightless, plump (albeit very cute), waddling bird named after her?  Although, she is forever part of penguin history and lore, there is no record of Adélie’s thoughts about her penguins.


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